"(title of show)," by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, is a musical about a musical called "(title of show)," by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, featuring characters called Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, who are writing a musical called "(title of show)." Yes, it's a play entirely about its own creation, and Los Altos Stage Company is currently having a blast presenting it for local audiences.
Composer Jeff (played by Derek DeMarco in the Los Altos version) and writer Hunter (Nick Rodrigues) are two "nobodies in New York" spending their days doing freelance web design and temp catering jobs and their nights in front of the TV, all the while dreaming of bringing an original musical to Broadway. The two have an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure theater trivia and are bursting with inside-jokes and references but have trouble coming up with an idea for something new. Pressed by a three-week deadline to submit something to a festival, the two decide to write what they know, and develop a show about the very development of the show itself, starring themselves, as themselves. They rope in wisecracking Susan (Caroline Clark) and sweet Heidi (Jocelyn Pickett) to help round out the team. Susan is full of zingers but insecure about her talents and has largely backed away from the theater scene, toiling instead as a corporate office manager. Heidi, unlike the rest of the crew, has actually performed in shows on the Great White Way, albeit in bit- and off-stage parts. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention music director/pianist Larry (Katie Coleman, the Los Altos production's real musical director and pianist), who is often comically neglected by the rest of the players.
Over the course of the one-act production, we see the team come up with ideas, struggle with doubt, bond, bicker and, eventually, bring the titular titleless show to full fruition.
Shows about show business are nothing new -- neither now, nor when "(title of show)" was first created back in 2004. The way "(title of show)" seems to unfold in real time, though, makes it especially clever. When Jeff mentions that Susan has been quiet, for instance, she remarks that she didn't have a line until now. Jeff and Hunter discuss how they'd better make sure each moment of their show is packed with riveting material so that audiences get their money's worth, then spend several minutes tediously doing not much of anything. One entire number, "Filling out the Form," is about just that, while "Awkward Photo Shoot" forces the team into a cheesy show of false camaraderie for the camera while their in-fighting is reaching its peak. "Monkeys and Playbills" is a very skillfully done scene involving Jeff rifling through piles of programs from Broadway flops while Hunter sketches out stream-of-consciousness ideas about a speed-boating monkey. If this all sounds rather silly, it certainly is, and very enjoyably so (and, parental-guidance alert, full of adult language).
Who knows how well such a winking, self-congratulatory, pop-culture heavy show will stand up over the decades. The premise of a show that's all about making that very show seems like it could be better suited to a single song, perhaps as a jokey opening to a Tony Awards ceremony, and sure, the idea does stretch thin and drag on at times, but such moments are surprisingly few and far between. Director Doug Brook keeps things moving along with high-energy staging. And we actually come to care about these self-absorbed Broadway obsessives, thanks in part to the chemistry and charm of the Los Altos cast.
DeMarco and Rodrigues have a great rapport as the BFFs and partners-in-creative-crime. Pickett's Heidi is the most sincere and least snarky of the crew, and her "A Way Back to Then" is a wistful look back at her childhood, when she first began to dream of Broadway, before she became jaded by the cruel and competitive world. Clark as the sometimes-grating Susan delivers one of the standout numbers, "Die Vampire, Die!," a funny but poignant song about the way self-doubt and impostor syndrome can wreak havoc on one's creative process and feelings of worth. Susan frequently laments that her singing is not up to par with the others, so it perhaps makes sense that the other vocalists tend to drown Clark out. The show has glorious harmonies aplenty and DeMarco, Rodrigues and Pickett are great and powerful vocalists, a bit too much so at times, actually. For such a small cast, backed by just a keyboard, I was surprised to find my ears actually painfully ringing after some of the belted high notes. Special kudos go to Coleman as the deadpan Larry, the show's "fifth Beatle" and secret weapon.
"(title of show)" is jam packed with many obscure Broadway references, so if you aren't a true-blue musical aficionado, you may feel the quips are flying over your head. And that's OK. While theater nerds are clearly the target audience and will get the most out of the script, even a casual fan should come away well-entertained.
What: "(title of show)"
Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos
When: Through June 24, Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.
Info: Go to Los Altos Stage Company